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Thinking of the Cross Today

Too Good to be True Rental Phones

Shortly before my recent trip to Israel, I was made aware of TalknSave, a company that rents phones to tourists for an unbelievable [to me] price of $5 per day. That $5 per day provides unlimited calls to/from phones in Israel, Canada and the United States.

Having lived as long as I did in Israel, I was skeptical of the offer as being too good to be true. However, rather than dismiss it altogether, I contacted the company and started an interesting “you gotta prove it” relationship with Elie Mamann, the company rep.

I explained my reluctance, which was based on typical Israeli marketing of large promises followed by zero customer service. Eli had heard the same reluctance by others, and he confided that he, too, was skeptical before he began working with this company. He assured me that the service was everything promised or he would not work there. Of course, that sounds like all the other “trust me” sales pitches I have heard in Israel. However, he said one thing that gave me enough confidence to give it a try: “I’m from North America, so I know what you have in mind regarding customer service.”

He convinced me, … sorta. I’m afraid I’ll be eternally skeptical of salesmen from that region. But, I told Elie that I would give him a try … and if the service is all he’s made it out to be, I promised to be his biggest supporter. On the other hand, if the service was fluff, I would be a megaphone warning others to stay away.

The result of our group’s use of TalknSave was total satisfaction. Elie provided all the personal service he promised, including meeting the group at the airport to deliver the phones at the bus. They also provide pre-paid mailer envelopes and a drop box at the airport for ease of return on the way out of the country.

We had 15-18 people rent the phones (a few different plans), and all were completely satisfied. We also had a few bring their home plans for various reasons. Some were happy with the home plan decision, even though they likely paid more. Those that brought Verizon service were sorely disappointed. Verizon agents may tell you that they provide service in Israel, but members of my group (and a previous one, too) found out that isn’t true.

I know that some will wonder, “what’s the use/need of having a mobile phone while touring Israel?” Here are some of the benefits:

  1. A growing number of tourists are on vacation, but still managing things back at the office because of the instant contact culture (calling, texting, surfing) that we are moving toward. These phones offer unlimited, instant contact at a very low price.
  2. Most tourists’ families are unaware that when they hear news of rockets coming into Israel, those rockets aren’t landing in every location. These phones offer unlimited calls that might be helpful in assuring folks back home that things are okay.
  3. In the case that something serious – like war, or the Arab Spring, or hospitalization – happens, these phones are an inexpensive way to be in touch with people back home. That might be helpful for the tourist and their families.
  4. As the group leader, my phone gave me an inexpensive way to be in touch with the guide, driver, and other people I needed to reach.
  5. Tourists aren’t always where they are supposed to be. Those that had phones were easily located. 

Be aware that there are different plans available, including data and text plans. For those that want to take their own “Smart Phone,” a SIM card is available in this plan. Also, groups (10 or more) get some perks that singles don’t, so it’s wise to order the service under a group name, which can be arranged by calling Elie prior to ordering.

If this recommendation interests you at all, whether you are a single or group traveler, please call Elie Mamann at 212-444-1503 or 1-800-941-4909. Tell him that Craig Dunning recommended you do so.

Israel’s VAT Tax [fraud]

In Israel, one of the powerful sales techniques used among higher-end souvenir shops is telling the tourist they will receive a “VAT refund at the airport.”

VAT stands for Value Added Tax, which currently is 16%. The VAT is what most of my readers would know as sales tax, and is added to every transaction that involves money.  However, certain services and items related to tourists are exempt from VAT, if the proper procedures are followed.

In the tourist trade, vendors who are appropriately recognized by the government offer a special receipt that allows the buyer to “get [their] VAT back” for each item they take out of the country. However, this only occurs if:

  1. a certain purchase threshold is met, and 
  2. if the shop is certified, and
  3. if the shop actually provides the appropriate form to the buyer, and
  4. the buyer shows the item at the VAT desk at the airport.

Up to this point, everything seems more or less reasonable. It’s a hassle, and some buyers don’t know the rules, or don’t receive the proper form, but it’s pretty nice to get 16% of the purchase price back.

The process is as follows:

  1. Shop in properly certified shops, which will have a green VAT REFUND logo.
  2. Purchase enough goods at the same time to meet the spending threshold. (I’ve heard different numbers, beginning at $100.)
  3. Get the proper form and keep the receipts.
  4. Do not pack the Duty Free item until it is presented to the VAT clerk located inside the departure hall, prior to the first security checkpoint. After the clerk verifies the item and stamps the form, the item may be packed in checked luggage or hand carried. Jewelry is verified only beyond passport control at the Change Place VAT desk in Duty Free. 
  5. After passing all security checks and passport control, present VAT refund forms at the Change Place VAT desk in the Duty Free hall.
  6. Receive a 16% rebate on your purchase(s) in dollars or shekels. I’ve been told that you can receive the refund via credit card also, but it takes up to three months.
  7. Fly home happy with your purchase(s) and the extra money in your pocket.

Sounds easy enough. And it is, as long as you follow the procedure exactly. However, there is one catch: At step 6, don’t expect to get 16% as you were told by the sales clerk because there is a hefty commission of 20%, which brings the actual refund to 12.8%.

I’ve been told there is a sliding commission scale, depending on how much VAT has been paid. Unfortunately, the Change Place website provides no such information. So, BUYER BEWARE! If you’re budget is dependent upon the VAT REFUND, you need to recalculate what you can afford to spend.

Israel Tour Highlight #137010

Beniko Gihon, #137010

Working with tour groups in Israel is [almost] always a blessing. It’s exciting to see visitors’ faces when, as they say in Hebrew, “the coin falls.” In other words, when “the light comes on” or the connection between a certain event and place happens. I love to see the joy of discovery, especially as it relates to the Bible. But my groups generally have modern cultural and historical interests, too. Every group is different, and I’m regularly on the look out for things out of the ordinary, not on the itinerary that will make my group’s visit to Israel more special than it might already be. For this group, I found that special historical gem in the breakfast line.

As I approached the special-order egg line, I noticed the tattoo on his arm, 137010. Immediately, I knew he was a holocaust survivor because I’ve seen these tattoos in the museum, and probably a dozen times in person. However, I never had the nerve to ask the bearer to share his/her story; I just imagined what it might have been.

This time was different. I took a deep breath and asked the elderly gentleman a) if he spoke Hebrew, and b) if I could ask a question. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. I was hesitant, but I proceeded to ask if he would tell me the story of the numeric tattoo that appeared on his left forearm. I was afraid he would be embarrassed, but he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed pleased that I asked.

Interacting with my inquiry about his tattoo, he said, “My name is Beniko Gihon; in Germany my name was changed to 137010. I am a Jew originally from Greece.” He continued with a moving, two-minute version of his story. His family had been rounded up in Thessaloniki, and he was the only survivor. Over the course of five years, he was systematically transferred to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. He had a variety of jobs, but mainly focused on his work in the crematoria.

I was translating his story for a man from my group and noticed that others had started to lean in closer to listen in on our conversation, which indicated that they found this interesting, too. After a couple minutes, his eggs and mine were ready, so, unfortunately, we had to bring this encounter to a close. I thanked him for sharing his story, we shook hands, and parted ways.

I found a table near my group and sat down by myself. To say that his story was gut wrenching would be an exaggerated understatement. But, his story wasn’t the thing that affected me the most. It was the question he posed: “Why were the Christians so quiet?”

I wanted my group to hear Beniko’s story, but I wondered if that would be asking too much. As I ate my breakfast, I kept an eye on him from across the room and wondered whether I should ask him to speak on the bus. Since he didn’t seem to mind my initial inquiry, I decided to go for it, and the outcome was just what I had hoped.

After my group boarded the bus, I brought them up to speed on what was about to happen, then I introduced Mr. Beniko. He climbed the stairs and stood proudly in the front of the bus and began to share his story.

Beniko, which is the Greek version of Benjamin, started with some details of his family and how the Nazis came to Greece and killed so many. The rest were taken to the labor and death camps in Germany and Poland, which is where he learned to speak German, and where his name was changed to 137010.

His story lasted longer than I had given him, which I knew it would. But, seeing him standing in the front of the bus and hearing his biography was worth every minute.

Some specific details that pierced my heart:

“I saw, with my own eyes, the soldiers toss little children in the air and shoot them like birds.” 


“As people were herded off the trains near the crematoria, they pleaded with the soldiers to know where their children or parents were. The soldiers would point to the smoke rising out of the crematoria and say, ‘there they are.’”

“The people were packed so tightly into the ‘showers’ that when the Zyklon B gas was released they all died standing, and only fell to the ground when the doors were opened. As we removed the bodies, we could see the scratches on the walls where those on the outer edges were trying to claw their way out.”

As a worker at the crematoria, “I collected the fat that came from the bodies as they were burned. The Nazis used the fat to make soap for us prisoners, and I bathed with soap that may have been made from the remains of my parents and other family members.”

Beniko’s story, made the horrors of the Holocaust real and personal for us, impacting each in a slightly different way. I tried to give some current perspective to his presentation because the easy thing would be to say, “I wasn’t there” because none of us were. I reminded the group of the words of James 1:27 that pure religion is to care for the widows and orphans, which I understand to mean “take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” I also think that being born again demands that Christians have an active interest in “the least of these” (Mt 25). 

Female Soldiers

This is a group of female soldiers at Jaffa Gate. Two things are happening: First, they are learning to stand in an orderly fashion. Rows and lines aren’t learned here in school, at the post office, or a restaurant; they are learned in the army. Some observers of Israeli culture would say, however, that lines are quickly forgotten immediately after a soldier is discharged. 🙂 In twelve years of baseball here, one of the most frustrating things was to need to repeatedly teach the players how to stand in rows and lines.

Second, the girls are touring the country, much like all the tourists just out of view who are taking pictures of them as they stand at attention. As they tour, they learn about the ancient and modern history of their country, which, to me, seems like a good thing.

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